Book Review: Breathe, Annie, Breathe

Breathe Annie BreatheIn Breathe, Annie, Breathe, the main character is a 17-year-old girl facing one of life’s cruelest moments: The boy she loved, her boyfriend of three years, died in a tragic accident. Annie’s whole life had revolved around Kyle. The two were inseparable, and so long as Annie had Kyle, she didn’t need other friends or anything else in her life.

As we meet Annie, Kyle has been dead for about six months, and Annie can barely function. Somehow she’s arrived at the idea that to honor Kyle’s memory, she’ll run the marathon he’d wanted to run but didn’t live long enough to accomplish. Annie is not a runner, however, so she joins a training program where, over the course of six months, she’ll push her body and mind into shape for the upcoming October marathon.

At first, she’s in constant pain and doesn’t believe she can do it. But her stubborn determination that she has to do this for Kyle keeps her moving forward. And then, on the trail, she encounters Jeremiah, the adrenaline-junkie brother of her running coach, and she feels something that she never thought she’d feel again. Sparks fly. It doesn’t hurt that he’s gorgeous and muscle-y, and seems instantly drawn to Annie as well.

Stop rolling your eyes! My description might make this book sound run-of-the-mill, but it’s not. True, on the surface, it’s “poor bereaved girl learns to love again”, and that’s been done before. But there are many elements that make Breathe, Annie, Breathe a cut above typical YA fare.

For starters, Annie herself is an interesting, conflicted, smart girl who doesn’t always make good choices. She’s the daughter of a single mom, Annie’s dad having walked out before she can even remember, and she, her mom, and her brother live in a trailer park. And that’s totally okay — Annie doesn’t feel shame, and the trailer park isn’t the stereotypical redneck, trashy place that you see in so many books and movies.

Because of her low economic status, Annie has to work for whatever she wants. She sees herself as weak many times, but it takes a lot of strength and commitment to do what she’s doing. The only way she can afford her running program is through hard work. Every shift at the restaurant matters; every bit of her tip money is accounted for, whether it’s her running gear, her living expenses for college the next year, or the cost of her school books. Annie doesn’t begrudge her mother anything or resent anyone — this is just her life, and she deals with it.

For another thing, Kyle is never torn down or criticized. In many books, the heroine finally moves on when she realizes that the dead boyfriend/lover/husband isn’t as perfect as she’s made him out to be. Not here. Kyle wasn’t perfect, but neither was Annie. Their relationship had flaws, but Annie does not for a moment stop wishing that they could have had the life they’d dreamed of. She moves forward by cherishing her memories of Kyle while also setting her sights on a life that no longer revolves around him.

From the early descriptions, I thought Jeremiah would be the bad-boy-saved-by-a-good-girlfriend stereotype, but that’s also not the case. Jeremiah is a great guy, a Southern gentleman, whose only flaw is his need to do extreme sports, to the extent that he’s been hurt so many times that his mother has kicked him out unless he promises to slow it down. He treats Annie with the utmost respect, and there’s never a doubt that he’ll be good to her and for her.

An added element that really makes this book a treat is the community it’s set in. Miranda Kenneally’s books take place in small-town Tennessee, with a rural setting, a close-knit community, and a Southern sensibility that involves hospitality and good manners. Characters from her previous novels show up in minor roles in Breathe, Annie, Breathe — but it doesn’t matter if you’ve read those books or not. It’s like getting a visit from old friends, which makes it fun if you recognize them, but their backstories don’t contribute to the plot of Breathe, Annie, Breathe in any way that would be confusing to someone unfamiliar with them.

I really enjoyed Breathe, Annie, Breathe. Annie’s emotional journey is portrayed with sensitivity, and her struggles and conflicts feel real. The guilt she feels over her attraction toward Jeremiah, the growing awareness that she needs to rebuild her life, reconnect with the friends she lost over the years by her own negligence, and think about what she truly wants for her future — all seem realistic and are easy to relate to. Meanwhile, Annie’s running journey is the backbone of the story, and it’s fascinating and inspiring to see how a person can transform herself if she’s willing to commit and throw herself into it.

Although categorized as young adult fiction, I’m not entirely sure that that’s the right place for this book. It skews a little older than YA, covering both the end of high school and the start of college. The sexual content is somewhat more explicit than I’ve seen in a lot of the contemporary YA that I’ve read lately, all of which seem to be more focused on flirting, popularity, and high school drama rather than on actual relationships with emotional and physical connections.

I’ve read one other book by Miranda Kenneally, Racing Savannah (reviewed here last year), and after reading Breathe, Annie, Breathe, I’d like to read more. Her books center on girls striving for success in typically male-dominated athletic pursuits, while at the same time sorting out their lives, their dreams, and their relationships.

In Breathe, Annie, Breathe, the story is quick-moving, but doesn’t skimp on emotional challenges or character development. Annie is a terrific main character, and readers will be cheering for her to succeed, in running and in rebuilding her life. The book tackles the subject of terrible loss without becoming maudlin; instead, the loss is acknowledged and honored in a way that feels appropriate and respectful. I recommend Breathe, Annie, Breathe — and Miranda Kenneally’s work in general — for readers who enjoy their YA a little on the older side.

A final, personal note: I hate to say it, but I’m mostly a couch potato at this point, with my exercise routine limited to long walks on the weekends and not much else. I loved reading about Annie’s training, though — and this book has made me start thinking that I should break out my old running shoes and give it another go!

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The details:

Title: Breathe, Annie, Breathe
Author: Miranda Kenneally
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: July 15, 2014
Length: 306 pages
Genre: Young adult contemporary fiction
Source: Library

Book Review: I’ll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the SunIn this unusual and affecting young adult novel, colors explode off the page, ghosts of dead relatives give sassy advice and float off the ground, and a girl’s hair smells like “sad flowers”.

I’ll Give You the Sun is the story of twins Noah and Jude and the tumultuous, tragic events that propel their lives onto unexpected trajectories in their teen years. Noah and Jude are an inseparable, mind-melded duo up until age 13. They’re so close that they can never play Rochambeau — they always choose the same option: rocks/rocks, scissors/scissors, paper/paper. But then their lives explode into pain, jealousy, and hurt, and nothing is the same.

The story is told in two voices and in two timelines. Noah narrates the 13-year-old pieces of the story. Noah is a gifted artist, who paints in his head when he doesn’t have paper at hand. His imagination is wild and bold, and he sees the world as art constantly. He’s also a misfit, picked on and bullied by the local “surftards”, the older, cooler surfer boys who dominate the teen social life in their small Northern California town. When a new boy, Brian, moves in next door, Noah falls instantly and utterly  in love, and is in a constant, euphoric torment as he spends all his time with Brian, best of friends — yet wondering if he’s interpreting Brian’s reactions correctly.

Jude, at 13, is an aspiring artist too, creating wild sand sculptures on the beach that get washed away as the tides change. But when their mother seems to home in on Noah as the gifted one, Jude turns away and focuses on becoming a hellion of a teen girl, wearing too much make-up, too short skirts, and flirting excessively with boys who are not going to treat her well.

From meeting Jude through Noah’s eyes, we jump to Jude’s piece of the story, when she is 16, enrolled in a prestigious art school for sculpture, worried that her dead mother is haunting her, and in desperate need of a way out of her misery. From a 13-year-old sex kitten, Jude has become a girl in hiding, dressed in baggy tshirts and jeans with her hair cropped short and hidden under a hat. Jude worries about Noah, who’s the epitome of normalcy, running cross-country, hanging out and drinking with the in-crowd as his public high school, and not doing a shred of art.

What happened to these two? How did their lives goes so completely off the rails? What cataclysmic event caused the 13-year-olds we knew to become 16-year-olds we can barely recognize?

To say that it’s complicated is an understatement.

As the plot moves forward, we get bits and pieces of story from both Noah and Jude, and come to understand both the terrible loss they’ve suffered and the crushing guilt each bears. Noah and Jude each feel responsible for what’s happened, but they don’t talk about it with each other. Each feels that they deserve whatever punishment comes their way; each feels the need to atone and make amends, but both feel that they’ve already screwed up and are beyond forgiveness.

I won’t give away much more of the plot. Suffice it to say that as new people enter their lives, Noah and Jude each learn more about what they did and didn’t do, what else contributed to the events in their family’s life, and start to understand why and how their lives changed so dramatically.

I’ll Give You the Sun is a celebration of the artistic impulse, the need to create and make, the innate ability to see the world in colors, shapes, and textures that the rest of us miss out on. There’s a sense of magic in the air, as Jude converses with her dead grandmother and observes her folk superstitions about love and healing. The writing is full of imagery, letting us inside the brains of two characters whose senses inform everything they see and do:

I start to run, start to turn into air, the blue careening off the sky, careening after me, as I sink into green, shades and shades of it, blending and spinning into yellow, freaking yellow, then head-on colliding into the punk-hair purple of lupine: everywhere.

flourish-31609_1280The sky’s overflowing with orange clouds and each time one floats down, Brian bats is back up like a balloon. I watch him hypnotize the girls as he does the fruit in the trees, the clouds in the sky, as he did me.

flourish-31609_1280Sometimes now, I swear I can see sound, the dark green howling wind, the crimson crush of rain – these sound-colors swirling around my room while I lie on my bed thinking about Brian. His name, when I say it aloud: azul.

In terms of pacing, I found myself a little impatient at first. After a relatively short Noah section to start the book, there’s next a very lengthy Jude section, and I just didn’t feel that I knew her well enough to care that much or spend that much time with her — I wanted more Noah! Eventually, by mid-book, the stories seem to reach a better balance, each one absorbing in its own way, so that I didn’t mind bouncing between the two time lines. I think it was at this point that the threads connecting the two sides of the story become clearer, so that in a way we end up in a detective role, seeking the clues to the mystery of how before turned into after for these two unique but matched people.

By the end, I was deeply moved by the story and the way Noah and Jude lost and then found each other again. With a cast of interesting and unusual supporting characters, the world of I’ll Give You the Sun feels full and well developed. It’s interesting to see the lines of connection between the different players, and how each played a part both in the earlier events and in how Jude and Noah finally find a way forward.

If you enjoy your fiction with a touch of magic and wild flights of imagination, you’ll love the writing in I’ll Give You the Sun. I know I did. With unusually lovely language and a plot full of heart-wrenching emotion, this book should be savored for its sounds and textures as well as for its plot.

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The details:

Title: I’ll Give You the Sun
Author: Jandy Nelson
Publisher: Dial
Publication date: September 16, 2013
Length: 371 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

Book Review: Jinn and Juice

jinnWith Jinn and Juice, Nicole Peeler launches a new urban fantasy series — and that’s very good news for fans of her hilarious and awesome Jane True series and for fans of paranormal fictional shenanigans in general.

In Jinn and Juice, we meet Leila — burlesque belly dancer, Pittsburgh resident… and 1,000-year-old jinni (genie). Leila was a young woman cursed by her family’s jinni, the evil Kouros, to live as a jinni for one thousand years. As a jinni, Leila has super magical powers, but she’s also subject to the will and whims of whoever happens to be her Master. Jinni can be either Bound or unBound — meaning that they can be Called and then basically owned by whatever Magi happens to find them. Once Bound to a Magi, jinni must be obedient and carry out their Magi’s orders. On the plus side, though, Bound jinni have access to all sorts of tremendous powers that they can’t access unBound, so there’s that.

For Leila, this jinni business basically sucks. She does not want to be a jinni. She’d love to be human again, and can be — so long as she is unBound when her 1,000 year curse ends. If she’s Bound at that time, then she’ll be cursed for another 1,000 years. Like I said, it sucks.

Leila lives in Pittsburgh, whose steel-soaked grounds provide a weird kind of magical current that Leila can plug into, although most supernaturals find Pittsburgh magic tainted and poisonous. Surrounding Leila are a Peeler-esque cast of unusual characters, including a psychic drag queen, an oracle, a will-o-the-wisp, and a pair of icky-creepy spider wraiths. This odd community works together in a paranormal burlesque club and forms a family of sorts — and they all band together to protect Leila when she is Called and Bound by a new Magi, the kinda-hot Ozan (known as Oz).

Together, Leila and Oz and company set out to locate a missing girl and figure out what the heck is causing all sorts of magical havoc in Pittsburgh. And meanwhile, Leila finds herself drawn to Oz more and more… but is that just the power of the Master-Jinni relationship, or is there actually a there there?

Okay, explanations aside, let me tell you about Jinn and Juice. First of all, it’s fun. If you’ve never read anything by Nicole Peeler, the main thing to know is that she’s hilarious. Her writing rocks, even when the storyline turns dangerous or tragic. Serious and often deadly things do happen, but the author gives her characters amazing lines that are eminently quote-worthy:

“While French fries on salads is pretty magical, that’s not what makes Pittsburgh special,” I said…

flourish-31609_1280Nowadays magic was something for Dungeons and Dragons. In books, vampires sparkled and really wanted to marry teenagers who tripped a lot. Hollywood only dreamed about jinn. And none of these creatures or powers really existed in the same universe as chaos theory, or particle accelerators, or atomic bombs… except they did.

flourish-31609_1280“Hit it with the bench!” shouted Ozan, and I had to obey. I reached for what had been one of the picnic table’s benches, hefting it with ease in one of my hamlike hands. Raising it above my head, I brought it down with all my strength on the bugbear’s head.
“Hulk smash!” I shouted, just for the fun of it.

flourish-31609_1280 “Are we ready?” Charlie asked, eyeballing our ragtag bunch with a worried expression. We didn’t exactly look professional… in fact, we looked exactly as you’d imagine a gothic burlesque would look, if it decided to do a SWAT team number.

Second thing to know: Love and sex matter in Peeler’s books. Attraction is hot. Sparks fly. Knees go weak with desire. The sexy factor in Jinn and Juice is top notch. Which is not to say that it’s all easy: One really interesting aspect of this story is how the power dynamics affect the sexual and emotional relationships. Leila’s master can order her to have sex with him if he chooses (although, hilariously, jinni seem to have all sorts of work-arounds when dealing with not-terribly-precise commands for acts that don’t suit them); he could even order her to enjoy it, I suppose. The fact that Leila’s new master is too decent to indulge is noteworthy — and later, even when the attraction is mutual and Leila is very into it, he declines — because how can either of them be sure that it’s real and not just a result of the Magi-Jinni bond?

Fangirl aside: This reminded me of the sire bond issues during the last season of The Vampire Diaries. I’m a big geeky nerd, I know.

The plot of Jinn and Juice is fueled by action, but it’s the people that really make it a treat. Leila herself is pretty awesome (especially how she’s the biggest, baddest thing in the room, despite her seemingly petite human frame), and I love her gang of eccentric, magical friends. Oz is just the right combination of smart, sexy, and sensitive, and the growing emotions and desire between Leila and Oz give off sparks.

Fans of the Jane True series will absolutely want to give Jinn and Juice a whirl — and really, this is a great choice for any one who enjoys urban fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Fun, magic, snark, along with dangerous, malevolent, volatile bad guys, make for quite an enjoyable and fast-paced adventure. Here’s hoping that the next installment in the series comes along soon!

Want. More. Now.

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The details:

Title: Jinn and Juice
Author: Nicole Peeler
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: November 25, 2014
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Book Review: The Rosie Effect

rosieFirst things first: The Rosie Effect is a sequel, continuing the story begun in The Rosie Project. And really, if you haven’t read the first book, there’s no point in reading this one.

The Rosie Effect picks up soon after the end of The Rosie Project, following Rosie and Don to Manhattan as they begin their lives as a married couple, with the complications you’d expect from this unusual pair. No sooner have they started settling into their lives — Don as a visiting professor at Columbia Medical School, Rosie finishing up her PhD thesis and entering med school — than a bombshell of a surprise comes along: Rosie is pregnant. And Don is thrown for a loop.

Rosie and Don take very different approaches to pregnancy, of course. Don, ever the man of science, embarks on a plan to maximize Rosie’s health — and Rosie does not take kindly to Don’s constant input on everything from appropriate pregnancy nutrition to stress levels to exercise needs. The marriage is on the rocks, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much hope.

Meanwhile, Don finds himself in exactly the sort of absurd situations you’d expect. Upon getting advice from a friend that he should spend some time observing children in order to prepare for fatherhood,  Don does exactly that… and ends up getting arrested after hanging out in a children’s playground taking videos of the kids playing.

Ultimately, the plot of The Rosie Effect boils down to a headline from a 1980s women’s magazine: Can this marriage be saved?

My reaction to this book is mixed. While there are certainly many amusing scenarios (let’s not forget the Bluefin Tuna Incident!), I’m not at all convinced that a sequel to The Rosie Project was necessary. In The Rosie Effect, it’s really just a lot of more of the same. Don is peculiar, highly intelligent, and emotionally stilted. He does some pretty amazing things, but always from a place of cluelessness. There’s a cast of supporting characters who are funny, unusual, and perfect complements to Don’s oddball nature. Rosie herself seems to be a bit absent in this book; while she’s always around and is on Don’s mind constantly, I wouldn’t have had much sense of her personality or desires without having read the first book.

Basically, everything that I found delightful and charming about the first book is repeated here in the second — and that’s the problem. The Rosie Project was new and different; The Rosie Effect is just a continuation. Without the newness, it’s treading familiar ground, and I simply wasn’t nearly as amused as I was the first time I encountered Don Tillman in all his glory.

The Rosie Effect is a quick read, but I actually think I could have done without it. It definitely picks up by the end, but there’s only so many time similar antics can play out before they become tedious. The Rosie Project was one of my favorite books of 2013, but in my opinion, should have been left as a stand-alone story. Sadly, this unnecessary sequel was mostly a disappointment to me. Still, the author is clearly quite talented, and I hope he’ll tell a new tale in whatever he publishes next.

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The details:

Title: The Rosie Effect
Author: Graeme Simsion
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: US publication date: December 30, 2014
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy via NetGalley

 

Fields & Fantasies presents… Hello From the Gillespies

Welcome to the November pick for the Fields & Fantasies book club! Each month or so, in collaboration with my wonderful co-host Diana of Strahbary’s Fields, we’ll pick one book to read and discuss. Today, we’re looking at Hello From the Gillespies by Monica McInerney:

gillespiesSynopsis (Goodreads):

For the past thirty-three years, Angela Gillespie has sent to friends and family around the world an end-of-the-year letter titled “Hello from the Gillespies.” It’s always been cheery and full of good news. This year, Angela surprises herself—she tells the truth….

The Gillespies are far from the perfect family that Angela has made them out to be. Her husband is coping badly with retirement. Her thirty-two-year-old twins are having career meltdowns. Her third daughter, badly in debt, can’t stop crying. And her ten-year-old son spends more time talking to his imaginary friend than to real ones.

Without Angela, the family would fall apart. But when a bump on the head leaves Angela with temporary amnesia, the Gillespies pull together—and pull themselves together—in wonderfully surprising ways….

My two cents:

In this slice-of-life family drama, we meet a seemingly perfect family — and then get to see what they’re really like. When Angela sits down to write her annual Christmas letter, she’s stuck and completely flustered at the idea of producing yet another glib, sugar-coated interpretation of her family’s current events. Instead, she starts a stream-of-consciousness rant, covering everything from her adult daughters’ career troubles, affairs, and debts, to her 10-year-old son’s weirdness, to the wall of coldness that’s come between her and her husband Nick.

Angela never intends to send the letter — but in the midst of a family crisis, Nick thinks he’s helping Angela out by hitting “send” on her Christmas email. And thus begins a touching and funny tale that explores the power of communication and family love.

This domestic drama was a huge change of pace for me, after reading a lot of horror and thrillers recently — but in truth, I loved it.

First of all, you can’t tell from the synopsis, but Hello takes place on a sheep station in the Australian outback. So, 10 bonus points for excellent setting! The landscape is described beautifully, and the isolation of the station is a big factor in how much the family has fallen apart.

The book takes some turns that I did not expect, with the crazy Christmas letter being dealt with much sooner than I would have thought. I was surprised by how honest Angela and her children ended up being with one another, and I loved the relationships between the daughters, who come with their own sets of problems and idiosyncrasies.

It’s much tougher for Angela and Nick to figure out their issues — and after a freak accident leaves Angela with a strange case of amnesia in which she believes her fantasy life to be real, her family’s nurturing and support help her find her way back to herself and to the life she and Nick truly want.

The characters here are all quirky and memorable, and I enjoyed the glimpses of the various Gillespie kids, their messed-up lives, and their great personalities. (Son Ig is my favorite, hands-down — funny, rambunctious, and with an endearingly oddball sense of creativity and imagination.) Angela and Nick have a bedrock of true love at the heart of their marriage, so it was quite moving to see the pain they each suffered along the way toward healing the rift between them.

As I said earlier, the Australian setting absolutely enhances the overall story and made it that much more enjoyable. And who hasn’t gotten tired of the annual Christmas letters, where every child is brilliant, every spouse is a success, every house is sparkling and lovely? Hello shows the fall-out from a massive dose of truth-telling. It’s fun, light reading, but with a real sense of heart as well.

This would be a great choice for someone looking for a holiday read that’s a bit different, but that still leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy when you’ve finished.

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The details:

Title: Hello From the Gillespies
Author: Monica McInerney
Publisher: Penguin Group/NAL Trade
Publication date: November 4, 2014
Length: 624 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy via NetGalley

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Diana is sitting this month out, but check back next month when we’ll be back with full interactivity!

Next for Fields & Fantasies:

hyperboleOur December book will be Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh.

 

 

Take A Peek Book Review: Revival by Stephen King

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little “peek” at what the book’s about and what I thought. This week’s “take a peek” book:

revival

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In a small New England town, in the early 60s, a shadow falls over a small boy playing with his toy soldiers. Jamie Morton looks up to see a striking man, the new minister. Charles Jacobs, along with his beautiful wife, will transform the local church. The men and boys are all a bit in love with Mrs Jacobs; the women and girls – including Jamie’s mother and beloved sister – feel the same about Reverend Jacobs. With Jamie, the Reverend shares a deeper bond, based on their fascination with simple experiments in electricity.

Then tragedy strikes the Jacobs family; the preacher curses God, mocking all religious belief, and is banished from the shocked town.

Jamie has demons of his own. In his mid-thirties, he is living a nomadic lifestyle of bar-band rock and roll. Addicted to heroin, stranded, desperate, he sees Jacobs again – a showman on stage, creating dazzling ‘portraits in lightning’ – and their meeting has profound consequences for both men. Their bond becomes a pact beyond even the Devil’s devising, and Jamie discovers that revival has many meanings. Because for every cure there is a price…

This rich and disturbing novel spans five decades on its way to the most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written. It’s a masterpiece from King, in the great American tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe.

My Thoughts:

It’s really impossible to quibble with Stephen King. He’s a master writer, and even in his lesser works, his gifts shine through. But for me at least, Revival is a step down from some of his more recent brilliant novels.

Revival is never dull, but it does take a very long time to truly start building momentum. I was at the 200-page mark before I began feeling any urgency in my reading. Perhaps the problem lies in starting the story with Jamie as a six-year-old. A great deal of time is spent on his childhood and adolescence, and while these years matter in the overall story, it’s a very slow build.

The ending is nightmarish, no doubt about it. And yet, I never felt a strong sense of where this story was going. There isn’t a whole lot of black and white, good and bad. The bad guy isn’t, strictly speaking, a real bad guy. The climax is a bit out of the blue, although hints pile up prior to the big event. Jamie himself is an interesting character, and while I was invested in him and his ability to turn his life around, I didn’t quite buy the obsession with Charlie Jacobs or the level to which he influences Jamie’s life.

I enjoyed Revival, and lost a lot of sleep after finishing it at one in the morning. Yes, by the end I couldn’t put it down, and found it intensely creepy and unsettling. Still, overall, I wouldn’t rank it among the Stephen King books that I routinely describe as masterpieces. This feels second-tier to me — but even so, second-tier King is still better than so much else that’s out there, and if you want a book that blends boyhood nostalgia with the most awful feeling of impending doom, you really can’t go wrong with Revival… or pretty much anything else King has written.

(PS – Completely irrelevant to discussion of the merits of this book… but Outlander fans will be amused by the presence of characters named Jamie, Claire, and Brianna in Revival.)

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The details:

Title: Revival
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: November 11, 2014
Length: 403 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased

Graphic Reaction… Serenity: Leaves on the Wind

Browncoats, rejoice!

If you’ve been in mourning ever since you watched Serenity once or twice or a thousand times, there’s a glimmer of sunshine waiting for you:

serenityMal is back! And so is his crew of big damn heroes.

Picking up after the events of the movie Serenity, we rejoin the gang some eight months or so later, on the run, avoiding the Alliance baddies, and trying to lie low and go their own way. But Captain Mal doesn’t manage to stay out of trouble for very long, and some very bad bad guys are trying to track them down.

Meanwhile, there’s bittersweet joy onboard the Serenity, as personal lives have moved forward in all sorts of ways — most pretty expected, but at least one development totally unexpected.

Sigh.

I can’t even begin to express how great it was to spend time with these guys again! River, Kaylee, Inara, Simon… even Jayne’s hat!… and the mule… and so much more.

serenity 3

This isn’t just fan service, though. Serenity: Leaves on the Wind has a story to tell, and it’s a good one. The plot is tight and action-packed, but with the same heart that held together the stories told in the too-brief life of Firefly.

The artwork is a bit spotty at times — sometimes Mal and Simon seemed interchangeable, and ditto for Inara and River. But overall, the likenesses worked well enough to make me happy.

156d_firefly_inevitable_betrayal_dinosaurs_with_sound

via ThinkGeek

What really and truly sent me over the moon was the dialogue. Words on a page aren’t the same thing as words spoken on a big (or small) screen — but the writers of Serenity: Leaves on the Wind have done a gorram great job of capturing the essence of the characters through the words they speak.

serenity 2

I know! Let’s play a guessing game! Can you guess who says each of the following in Serenity: Leaves on the Wind?

a) Bad people got in my head, put things there, secrets. I could feel them hidden away, dug in like parasites.

b) This job can’t go but one way. Turns out you’re beyond your depth, I ain’t gonna drag you back.

c) This ain’t right, havin’ that man on our ship.

d) Vera’s got this.

e) I marched a lot of young folk to their deaths and had it in mind never to do so again. Anyone shows up uninvited, there’ll be a fine amount of hell to pay, that clear?

f) Plus, you need me, sir.

g) Case you don’t remember, we dealt a pretty ugly blow to a giant wasn’t too fond of us in the first place.

h) I can hear everything, all at once. I can hear the whole ‘verse.

serenity 5Whee! I could go on all day. But I’ll stop there. Share your guesses in the comments. Whoever gets the most right wins… the undying admiration of your peers!

Serenity: Leaves on the Wind is a hardcover compilation volume of six previously published comic book editions plus a short story comic, “It’s Never Easy”, from Free Comic Book Day in 2012. The story is left open-ended just enough to allow for more Serenity tales to come (although I couldn’t find anything saying one way or the other whether more are planned at the moment).

If you’re a fan, you’ll want to read this. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s sexy. It’s moving. It even brought on a tear or two.

But you know what it is, more than anything else?

Shiny.

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The details:

Title: Serenity: Leaves on the Wind
Author: Zach Whedon
Publisher: Dark Horse Books
Publication date: November 5, 2014
Length: 152 pages
Genre: Comics/graphic novel
Source: Purchased

Book Review: The Martian

martianThis is yet another book that makes me want to write a review that simply says:

Loved it. Read this book.

But that’s not terribly helpful, is it? Unless you trust me so very much that you’re willing to take my word for it, just because. No? Okay, I’ll tell you just what I loved about this smart, funny, dramatic, and utterly entertaining book.

As you’d guess from the cover image, The Martian is the story of an astronaut. Mark Watney is part of a crew of astronauts participating in NASA’s third manned exploration of Mars. Six days into their mission, a massive dust storm prompts an evacuation of the planet, during which Mark is struck by flying debris and believed to be dead. With only minutes to spare before their emergency launch, the mission leader makes the tough call to leave Mark’s body and get the heck off the planet. The world mourns.

Surprise! Mark isn’t dead… but he may be soon. Mark is the sole human on all of Mars, left with the mission’s habitation structure and equipment, a 100-something day food supply, and no means of communication or rescue. The next mission to Mars won’t arrive for another four years. So what’s Mark to do? He has no intention of giving up, and sets about figuring just what it will take to breathe, drink water, and not starve to death in the years he’ll have to wait before he has a shot at returning to Earth.

When NASA finally realizes, thanks to satellite imagery, that they left a very much alive Mark behind, the entire world becomes obsessed with Mark’s survival, and it takes all the brains of NASA and then some, plus the determination of Mark’s crewmates, to figure out a rescue plan with any chance of success.

Ultimately, though, it’s all up to Mark and his incredible brain. As with all NASA missions, the crew members serve multiple roles, and Mark is the mission’s botanist/mechanical engineer. With his knowledge of botany, Mark figures out how to grow crops to sustain himself when the stored food runs out, and with his engineering skills, he’s able to jerry-rig solutions whenever equipment breaks — which is often.

You’d think a book in which the main character spends time calculating the square footage of arable soil needed to produce enough calories for survival or figuring out how to use rocket fuel to create water might get a little weighed down by science-speak… but you’d be dead wrong. I’ve never been more fascinating by geeky science talk. Stuff like this:

I can create the O2 easily enough. It takes twenty hours for the MAV fuel plant to fill its 10-liter tank with CO2. The oxygenator can turn it into the O2, then the atmospheric regulator will see the O2 content in the Hab is high, and pull it out of the air, storing it in the main O2 tanks. They’ll fill up, so I’ll have to transfer O2 over to the rovers’ tanks and even the space suit tanks as necessary.

The point is, the narration here is super-smart yet super engaging. Mark is in battle for survival — but he’s so extremely funny that even in his direst of straits, there’s plenty to make you laugh. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, and half the fun is seeing how crazily creative Mark’s solutions are.

One thing I learned after reading The Martian is that author Andy Weir created his own programming in order to figure out things like trajectories and orbits, and his need to make sure that the science works results in a book that’s full of compelling and weird details — which, strangely, don’t weigh down the narrative, but instead let us feel like we’re right there next to Mark, trying to figure out how to rig a heat supply without blowing things up. (I loved Entertainment Weekly’s recent write-up about Andy Weir – check it out here.)

Bottom line? I loved this book. With never a dull moment, The Martian is a treat for the brain as well as providing plenty of laughs along with true suspense and a nail-biting battle for survival. Mark’s voice is what makes reading The Martian such a fun experience, so I’ll leave you with a few choice selections from the logs of astronaut Mark Watney:

If you asked every engineer at NASA what the worst scenario for the Hab was, they’d all answer “fire”. If you asked them what the result would be, they’d answer “death by fire.”

About the e-mails that come pouring in once the world realizes Mark is alive:

One of them was from my alma mater, the University of Chicago. They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially “colonized” it. So technically, I colonized Mars.

In your face, Neil Armstrong!

In other news, it’s seven sols till the harvest, and I still haven’t prepared. For starters, I need to make a hoe. Also, I need to make an outdoor shed for the potatoes. I can’t just pile them up outside. The next major storm would case the Great Martian Potato Migration.

The airlock’s on its side, and I can hear a steady hiss. So either it’s leaking or there are snakes in here. Either way, I’m in trouble.

If you at all enjoy reading about space exploration, scientific discoveries, or incredibly inventive men with senses of humor, read The Martian!

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The details:

Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publication date: 2014
Length: 369 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

Blog Tour & Book Review: Us by David Nicholls

usI’m delighted to be participating in the blog tour celebrating Us, the brand-new novel by David Nicholls, author of the amazing One Day. Thank you, TLC Book Tours, for inviting me to participate!

Us is the story of a marriage that may or may not be ending, how it got that way, and what a man in love will do to hold onto what he’s about to lose.

Main character Douglas Petersen is a desperate man. His wife has just informed him that once their teen son Albie leaves for college in the fall, she’s planning to leave too. According to Connie, their marriage has “run its course”, and it’s time for her to move on to the next chapter of life.

Douglas is an odd but determined man. He’s a scientist, very logical, very methodical; the opposite, in many ways, of free-spirit Connie, who was an artist when they first met but has since moved into the business side of the art world. And then there’s their son Albie, a typically sullen 17-year-old with nothing, it seems, but contempt for the father who just doesn’t get him.

The family has a European vacation planned for the summer, the classic “Grand Tour”, and Douglas views it as a last chance to save his marriage and hold his family together. And of course, it’s a complete disaster. Douglas has every step of the trip planned down to the minute,  including viewing every piece of important art and historical artifact in Europe, with no time left in the schedule for spontaneity or fun — which pretty much encapsulates his approach to life in general. Finally, there’s a blow-up, and Albie takes off on his own, leaving Douglas to pursue him in a one-man quest to make amends and repair something that may be irreparable. And, Douglas thinks, if he can come home triumphantly with Albie by his side, Connie may see the error of her ways and stay with him after all.

Nothing goes as it should. Douglas is a crazy smart man, but his people skills are sorely lacking. Time and again, he does just the wrong thing at just the wrong time. It’s no wonder Connie wants out and Albie wants away. Douglas must be insufferable to be around — and yet, Us is Douglas’s first-person narrative, which is a wonderful trick on the part of the author. Seen from the outside, Douglas would be awful. But seeing through his eyes, the picture is quite different: Here’s a man, full of awkwardness, madly in love with his wife from the moment he met her, who tries his best, yet always comes up short. His perception of the world around him makes perfect sense; it just doesn’t necessarily mean that the world understands.

Us is a sad story of what happens to a marriage over the course of many years, no matter how much love it starts with and how much true caring exists between the partners. Over time, the newness erodes, and familiarity takes the place of discovery:

Of course, after nearly a quarter of a century, the questions about our distant pasts have all been posed and we’re left with “how was your day?” and “when will you be home?” and “have you put the bins out?” Our biographies involve each other so intrinsically now that we’re both on nearly every page. We know the answers because we were there, and so curiosity becomes hard to maintain; replaced, I suppose, by nostalgia.

The writing in Us is absolutely sparkling. This is one of those books that will make you very annoying to your friends and family, as you’ll be wanting to read the clever and funny bits out loud constantly — and there are clever and funny bits on every page.

She looked fresh, healthy and tasteful, and yet I found myself instinctively wanting to do up an extra button. I wondered if I might be the only man in the world to have dressed a woman with his eyes.

Douglas may be a rigid and opinionated middle-aged man, but he’s also funny, smart, and full of love, even though the love he feels never quite translates into dialogue that sits well with his wife and son. They’re constantly amused at his expense, seemingly cool and in the know in a way he can never be.

A humorous (yet sad) ongoing theme is Douglas’s inability to understand art — particularly sad, given that his wife is an artist. He’s always stuck for what to say in a museum, resorting to either parroting the audiotour narration or making inane observations on the colors or details of a painting. “Look at the reflection in his eye!” or “I love the blue!” And the more desperate he is to connect, the more he fails:

They stared and stared and I wondered, what was I meant to take from this? What were they seeing? Once again I was struck by the power of great art to make me feel excluded.

Finally, it takes Douglas’s hitting an emotional bottom of sorts and finding himself completely bereft of his usual resources and coping mechanisms before he’s able to achieve any measure of rapprochement with Albie. The father-son relationship is not easy, but there’s still love there, despite the years of snarkiness and incomprehension.

“Da-ad!” he growled, shielding his eyes against the light. “What’s up?”

“I got jumped. By some jellyfish.”

He sat up. “In the water?”

“No, on the land. They took my keys and wallet.”

Interestingly, towards the very end, the author takes a few pages to show us how the same story might have been told by Connie or by Albie, and of course, it’s completely different. And yet, it’s thanks to Douglas’s narration that the not so very unusual tale of a disintegrating marriage becomes something unique.

Us is funny and sad, familiar in its slice of life approach to ordinary people, and yet with many moments that are surprising and unexpected. Any family has its ups and downs; any long-term marriage has its pain, boredom, and exasperation — but there’s still hope, and tenderness, deep caring, and the possibility that there are still more surprises and fresh chapters to explore.

I recommend Us wholeheartedly. Full of crisp, snappy writing and quirky yet relatable characters, Us is a story of love, how it can change over time, and what it means to be a family. For anyone who enjoys contemporary fiction about people and relationships with a ring of truth, don’t miss this terrific new novel.

Find out more:

Check out the Goodreads link, or watch this book trailer:

 

Buy the book!

Amazon,
IndieBound
Barnes & Noble

About the Author:

David NichollsDavid Nicholls’s most recent novel, the New York Times bestseller One Day, has sold over 2 million copies and been translated into thirty-seven languages; he also wrote the screenplay for the 2010 film adaptation starring Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway. Trained as an actor before making the switch to writing, Nicholls’s previous novels include Starter for Ten (originally published in the U.S. as A Question of Attraction), adapted into a film starring James McAvoy, for which Nicholls also wrote the screenplay; and The Understudy. He continues to write for film and TV as well as writing novels and adapting them for the screen, and has twice been nominated for the BAFTA awards. He lives in London with his wife and two children.

Find out more about David at his website and connect with him on Facebook.

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The details:

Title: Us
Author: David Nicholls
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: October 28, 2014
Length: 396 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours

tlc logoFor further information, stop by TLC Book Tours to view other blog tour hosts.

Take a Peek Book Review: Lizzy & Jane

A quick note: I thought I’d try out a new book review format! My “Take a Peek” reviews will be short and (I hope) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little “peek” at what the book’s about and what I thought. Tell me if you like!

Lizzy and Jane

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Lizzy and Jane never saw eye to eye. But when illness brings them together, they discover they may be more like Austen’s famous sisters after all.

Lizzy was only a teenager when her mother died of cancer. Shortly after, Lizzy fled from her home, her family, and her cherished nickname. After working tirelessly to hone her gift of creating magic in the kitchen, Elizabeth has climbed the culinary ladder to become the head chef of her own New York restaurant, Feast. But as her magic begins to elude her, Paul, Feast’s financial backer, brings in someone to share her responsibilities and her kitchen. So Elizabeth flees again.

In a desperate attempt to reconnect with her gift, Elizabeth returns home. But her plans are derailed when she learns that her estranged sister, Jane, is battling cancer. Elizabeth surprises everyone—including herself—when she decides to stay in Seattle and work to prepare healthy, sustaining meals for Jane as she undergoes chemotherapy. She also meets Nick and his winsome son, Matt, who, like Elizabeth, are trying to heal from the wounds of the past.

As she tends to Jane’s needs, Elizabeth’s powers begin to return to her, along with the family she left behind so long ago. Then Paul tries to entice her back to New York, and she is faced with a hard decision: stay and become Lizzy to her sister’s Jane, or return to New York and the life she worked so hard to create?

My Thoughts:

Lizzy & Jane is both sad and hopeful, a look at two sisters who have a seemingly impassable chasm between them after years of resentment, estrangement, and loneliness. Elizabeth is adrift in the world; she thinks that she’s put her painful family history behind her and that she’s found success as a top New York chef, but as the story opens, she’s forced to admit that her life just isn’t working any more.

Reunited with her sister and her father, Elizabeth slowly starts to find joy in her cooking again, as she cares for her sister, her sister’s kids, and even the other chemo patients she meets while keeping Jane company. As Elizabeth begins to open herself up to forgiveness and reconciliation, she finds her life taking on new meaning and finds a passion and purpose that she didn’t even know she needed.

I loved how neatly the author ties together literature and cooking in this lovely (and delicious) novel. I’m not a foodie, but even I appreciated Lizzy’s knack for understanding a person’s food tastes based on what they love to read. I don’t know if I’m quite convinced that it would work in real life, but in the context of fiction, it’s simply inspired!

Overall, I really enjoyed Lizzy & Jane. The main character is flawed and wounded, and it’s lovely to see her reconnect with her sister and rediscover herself in the process. The love story is a tad predictable, but still delicious in its own way. The portrayal of the fraught relationship between the sisters feels realistic and sensitive, and I couldn’t help cheering for the characters (and occasionally wanting to give them a little kick to get them talking again!). Filled with real emotion, satisfying personal growth, and a group of supporting characters who each add a little spice to the story, Lizzy & Jane is a great choice for anyone looking for a book to make you feel.

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The details:

Title: Lizzy & Jane
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: October 28, 2014
Length: 339 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Thomas Nelson via NetGalley